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Sermon for Choral Evensong on Whit Sunday 2019

Exodus 33:7-20; 2 Corinthians 3:4-18 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=427016797

‘O King of Heaven, thou the comforter and spirit of truth,

Thou who art everywhere and bringeth all things to perfection,

Treasury of goodness and life-giver,

Come and dwell in us, cleanse us from all our sins,

And save us, O Lord.’

This is the prayer, originally from the Orthodox church, one of the so-called ‘trisagion’ prayers, ‘thrice-holy’ prayers, which Godfrey uses as a vestry prayer before all our services at St Mary’s. It is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come; it is in effect a restatement of that great line of the Lord’s Prayer, Thy Kingdom Come, which has been the subject of the ‘wave of prayer’ from Ascension Day until Pentecost. The prayer movement called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ was originally started by our Archbishops, Justin and John, in 2016, and has spread out all over the world.

Even now, at the same time as we are worshipping at St Mary’s, there is a big outdoor service taking place on Stag Hill outside the Cathedral in Guildford, bringing to an end the nine days of prayer and celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, the tongues of fire on their heads and the ability, all of a sudden, to speak in a variety of languages; so that each person who heard them thought they were speaking in his or her own native language. It was described in Acts 2, one of the lessons this morning.

It is a time to celebrate; a time to be close to God. Being close to God, in the Old Testament, at the time of Moses, meant not being allowed to see Him, so great was the splendour of the Almighty. He led the Israelites, concealed in a pillar of cloud: and he showed himself to Moses in the burning bush; but the splendour, the glory of the Lord, was so great that Moses’ face reflected the glory of the Lord so brightly that nobody could look straight at him. He had to cover himself up, be veiled, when he came out of the tabernacle when he had been meeting the Lord. As we heard in our first lesson from the book of Exodus, no-one apart from Moses could look on the face of God and survive.

But now, as St Paul says, in our second lesson from his second Letter to the Corinthians, the veil has fallen away, because of the presence of Jesus. It’s no longer the case that no-one can look at God and survive; because God is with us, God is in us. St Paul has this great idea of our being ‘in Christ’, which is a sort of upside-down way of saying that we have Christ in us – and the Christ that is in us is the Holy Spirit.

We pray, ‘Come and dwell in us; cleanse us from all our sins, and save us, O Lord.’ Thy Kingdom come. That Kingdom really has two sides to it. There is the Holy Spirit coming and dwelling in us, so that we are in Christ, which is a personal salvation for us as individuals: and there is the coming of the Kingdom which we pray for in the Holy Communion service, when we pray for that day ‘when your kingdom comes, and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth’ [Common Worship: Holy Communion Order One, Eucharistic Prayer E – p 197]: where we pray for a public salvation, we could say. Being in Christ is private salvation, and when ‘justice and mercy rule in all the earth’, that is public salvation.

The Holy Spirit is everywhere, public and private. ‘Thou who art everywhere and bringeth all things to perfection’. Christians receive the Holy Spirit in various ways. We here are cool Northerners, I don’t mean ‘North of Watford’, but Northern Europeans. Singing a Moody and Sankey hymn, and responding ‘Amen’ with feeling after a rousing sermon, is as hot as it gets for us.

But not far away there are ‘house churches’, Pentecostal churches, where they invite the Spirit to come, literally to inspire the worshippers, to get them to speak in tongues and reach heights of ecstasy. Gerald Coates and the Cobham Fellowship, which evolved into the Pioneer People and the Pioneer churches, had its origins around here, and Pioneer still attracts many people to worship in this charismatic way.

But still, we in the Church of England are cool customers. Just as Martin Luther wasn’t keen on what he called ‘madness’ or ‘Schwärmerei’ in other parts of the Reformed church, so in the 18th century in England, during the evangelical revival, at the time of the start of Methodism – which was, after all, originally an Anglican movement – Sermon 32 of the 44 collected sermons of John Wesley, (which all Methodist preachers have to familiarise themselves with during their training) is called ‘The Nature of Enthusiasm’, and is a sermon on that line in the Acts of the Apostles, 26:24, when Festus, the Roman governor, was questioning Paul, after Paul had explained the Gospel to him and explained how he had been converted to Christianity, Festus ‘said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself’; that is, you are mad.

John Wesley says, “… if you aim at the religion of the heart, if you talk of ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost’, then it will not be long before your sentence is passed, ‘Thou art beside thyself.’” People will think that you are mad. [Revd John Wesley, A.M., 1944, ‘Sermons on Several Occasions’, Peterborough, The Epworth Press: Sermon 32, Paragraph 1]

The term ‘enthusiasm’, in this context, is supposed to come from Greek origins, but John Wesley pours cold water on this supposed etymology. He sums up by saying, ‘Perhaps it is a fictitious word, invented from the noise which some of those made who were so affected.’[Paragraph 6].

If he was being too sniffy about this, and ‘enthusiasm’ was in fact derived from the Greek εν θεω, ‘in God’, and so, metonymically, ‘in Christ’, the word was perhaps coined to distinguish a sort of religious ‘madness’, as opposed to being completely bonkers. People could be perfectly normal and rational in the rest of their lives, but behave irrationally when it came to religion: in this they were being ‘enthusiasts’.

This was, of course, the time of Reason, the time of the Enlightenment, the time of John Locke and David Hume, of Descartes; a time of great challenge to Christianity as well as a time of evangelical revival. Today, as we look back on the Novena of prayer, nine days of prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost, today, if you have been following in the online app [https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/thy-kingdom-come/id1377639052?mt=8, or website https://www.thykingdomcome.global] which the Church of England has provided, you will have been enjoying some lovely short videos of various church leaders talking about the implications of the prayer ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

One of these videos is one of our two Archbishops, who between them dreamed up the idea of praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ in order to fill up the emptiness after the Ascension with a ‘wave of prayer’. That great wave is breaking now, on Whit Sunday.

There’s a video by John Sentamu, our Archbishop of York. [See https://www.thykingdomcome.global/resources/day-6-prayfor-archbishop-sentamu-prayed-five-people-last-year-and-was-astounded-result]

He recommends that you should write down the names of five friends, five friends who are not churchgoers, and whom you pray for, ‘Thy Kingdom come’, so that they come to ‘know Christ’, as Archbishop John says. I suspect that Archbishop John is a little bit ‘enthusiastic’, in John Wesley’s terms. I would say, as a cool Northern European, that I can’t ‘know’ Christ in the same way that I know any one of you. But I can know about Christ, and I can be open to perceive the operation of the Holy Spirit in my fellow-Christians and in our church.

Indeed, we often do say that we can see the Holy Spirit at work in our church. Why did Revd John Waterson stick out for the really beautiful and grand Frobenius organ, when the Diocesan Advisory Committee sanctioned only something far more modest? It was to the greater glory of God, and this wonderful organ has enabled us to make more music, more beautiful music, ever since. Again, it was the Holy Spirit at work in this and the other churches in this area in the Churches Together in Cobham and Oxshott meeting, which led to the creation of the Foodbank. Who knew? Who knew that, under our noses, there are dozens of people who have to face the choice between paying the rent and buying some food. Right here in Stoke, in Cobham and Oxshott, in the Horsleys, Effingham and Downside. In all these prosperous areas – who knew? The Holy Spirit knew, and inspired us to do something about it. Where will the Spirit lead us next? We must watch and pray. We must pray, ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’

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Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 2nd July 2017
1 Samuel 28:3-19, Luke 17:20-37

Like a lot of military leaders in history, before his big battle with the Philistines, King Saul, first king of Israel, wanted to consult a seer, someone who could discern what God’s will would be in the battle to come. Was he destined to win or lose?

Saul wanted to ask God, through a priest or, perhaps more controversially, through a medium, a witch, a ‘woman that hath a familiar spirit’, who would be able to discern the will of God, that is, she would be able to discern what would happen. And he was taken to see the Witch of Endor.

What do you think a ‘familiar spirit’ might be? Perhaps it’s a ‘witch’s familiar’ – usually a black cat. But I think it sounds a bit too high-falutin’: another modern translation suggests that the whole expression is simply a synonym for what we would now call a ‘medium’.

Anyway, divination, foretelling the future by casting lots, or examining the entrails of an animal which had been sacrificed, was common in the ancient world – although even then, there was a feeling that this might be some kind of magic trick, just superstition.

Saul persuaded the Witch of Endor to bring back the spirit of the great judge and prophet Samuel from the dead. The ghostly Samuel duly appeared, and forecast that Saul and the Israelites would be defeated. It was a shock to Saul to hear what was going to happen.

The Witch linked Saul’s imminent defeat to the fact that he hadn’t obeyed the voice of the Lord, and hadn’t ‘executed his fierce wrath against Amalek’, so God would foresake the Israelites.

And then you heard the story, in St Luke’s Gospel in the New Testament, of the Pharisees wanting Jesus to forecast the future: what day will the Kingdom of God – or perhaps the end of the world – come? Jesus firmly told them that you couldn’t tell the answer by ‘observation’ – a translation from a Greek word which has a connotation of close observation in a superstitious sense – ‘reading the runes’ or some sort of divination, like going to see the Witch of Endor.

Jesus said, in effect, that you could not discern the will of God by reading tea-leaves or ghastly rituals with the innards of dead animals. The kingdom of God wasn’t ‘out there’ to be observed or divinated for. ‘For behold, the kingdom of God is within you,’ he said.

We could just pause at that point, and reflect on the whole business of fortune-telling and divination. I think that it is open to a logical, philosophical challenge.

If you go back to Saul calling up the spirit of Samuel from the dead – and any of those military examples, somehow asking God how the battle would go the next day – the logical problem is that, unless you believe that we have no free will – unless you think we are rigidly programmed, so that whoever discovers the programme can predict what we’ll do in a given set of circumstances – then at least in theory, you can always react to the prediction, to the prophecy, so as to avoid the outcome predicted.

I’ve always thought it was rather a weak bit of that film ‘Gone with the Wind’ when Scarlett O’Hara tells her father not to chase after someone on his horse, because if he does, he’ll fall off and kill himself: so he chases after the man, falls off, and kills himself. He could have avoided that, I’ve always thought.

So Saul could have decided not to fight the Philistines. But he didn’t, in fact; he didn’t take avoiding action, and so the prophecy actually came true. There was perhaps an extra factor, in that God’s will had resulted from his anger at what Saul had been doing, so arguably it wouldn’t have made much difference if he’d decided to pick another quarrel.

This is about how we discern the will of God. What does God want of us? According to the prophet Micah, ‘He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ [Micah 7:8]

It isn’t a question of going to Mystic Meg or reading the horoscopes at the back of the News Chronicle. When will the kingdom of God come in? For those Pharisees addressing Jesus, of course, the kingdom meant victory over the occupying power, over the Romans, kicking them out of Palestine. But Jesus offered another vision, that the kingdom had come really, when someone accepted him into their hearts, when they were converted. ‘The kingdom of God is within you!’

How do we encounter the kingdom of God? Should we look out for mediums and diviners? I think not. Who is like a prophet today? Surely we should look to our spiritual shepherds, who look over us as a flock – our ministers in our churches. Of course it’s not the case that only through a priest that we can approach God: since the Reformation we have had the idea of the Priesthood of all Believers too.

This is an especially apt weekend to think about who our prophets and pastors, our shepherds, are. It is the time known in the Church as Petertide, after the feast day of SS Peter and Paul on Thursday. It is traditionally the time when priests and deacons in the Church of England are ordained. In Guildford Cathedral today and yesterday, yesterday morning was a service for the ordination of priests, and today there were two services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, for the ordination of deacons. You will remember that when people are ordained, they are first ordained Deacon, which is a sort of L plate ministry – you can’t celebrate Holy Communion or marry people – and a year later you are ‘priested’, you are made a priest, fully ordained and fully able to celebrate the sacraments.

Why the link with St Peter? It’s because of what is called the ‘apostolic succession’, the originally Catholic idea that Christian ministry is derived from the earliest apostles, chief among whom was St Peter. The idea is that πρεσβύτεροι, elders, presbyters, ministers, are appointed by laying on of hands by the Pope – who is said to derive his authority under God from his direct line of succession from St Peter – and so they are all in a line of ministry which comes down from St Peter.

The authority of priests in the Church of England is said by Roman Catholics not to be in the line of apostolic succession, because of Henry VIII. It is the fact that Henry refused to acknowledge the authority of the Pope, but instead made himself ‘fidei defensor’, ‘defender of the faith,’ which is what FD means on coins, after the Pope, rather prematurely, had given him this title), rather than that the C of E is a Protestant church. Our theology is said to be ‘catholic but reformed’. But despite what the Roman Catholics might say, in the C of E, we also think that our bishops and priests have been ordained in a due apostolic succession from St Peter.

Now, this week, this Petertide, there’s been a happy new development in relation to apostolic succession.

John Wesley – who was an Anglican vicar all his life – found that there were no bishops to ordain ministers for service in the new American colonies, when he visited in 1738, and so he eventually decided to ordain some ministers himself. This led to his ‘Methodist’ societies becoming a separate denomination in the church, although they had started as something rather like bible study groups, home groups, within Anglican parishes. You would go to the parish church in the morning, and to the Methodist ‘class’ in the afternoon.

There have been various efforts to bring Methodism and Anglicanism back together. The two churches believe the same things, and some theological colleges teach Anglicans and Methodists alongside each other – for example The Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. There was an attempt to join the two churches in 1972, which was turned down by the Anglican General Synod, and in the early 2000s there were Anglican-Methodist Covenant meetings, aimed at paving the way for unity – not losing each church’s separate identity, but recognising the validity of each other’s ministry and teaching. A stumbling-block was the question of apostolic succession. Except in the USA, the Methodist Church does not have bishops. There are ‘circuit superintendents’ in Methodism, who function much like bishops. The former Methodist minister in Cobham and Leatherhead, Rev. Ian Howarth, is the Chair of the District of the Methodist Church in Birmingham – effectively, he is the Methodist Bishop of Birmingham, in all respects except for the fact that he has not been ordained by the laying on of hands by a bishop.

Now this week a new report has been published by the ‘Faith and Order’ bodies of both churches, called ‘Mission and Ministry in Covenant’. It is a set of proposals to make each church’s ministers fully equivalent. [See https://www.churchofengland.org/media/4002173/ministry-and-mission-in-covenant-revised-final-draft-formatted.pdf%5D

The churches have agreed to recommend to their governing bodies – to General Synod for us and to the Methodist Conference for them – that there will be Methodist bishops, originally ordained by three C of E bishops, and then, as more and more Methodist bishops are ordained, eventually the apostolic succession will extend to both churches. In time there will be Methodist ministers serving as vicars in parish churches, and C of E priests leading Methodist congregations.

I’m very pleased. Both my grandfathers, and one great-grandfather, were Methodist ministers, and I was brought up a Methodist. My last Methodist ‘class ticket’, as the membership card is called, is dated 1997. We used to have an evening service every third Sunday which alternated between Cobham Methodist Church and St Andrew’s. For various reasons, eventually I decided to become an Anglican: I’m not alone in Cobham. There are at least two Methodist Local Preachers, which is their name for Readers, at St Andrew’s.

We had a very friendly Anglican-Methodist Covenant discussion group: I hope we do it again. It will be a joyful way to show how ‘these Christians do love each other’.

So let us remember that God will not show himself to us through Mystic Meg: that the kingdom of God is ‘within us’, and that means at least partly here in our churches. And the great news is that at least two of the churches are moving closer together in love and fellowship. What a splendid witness that will be.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, 20th December 2015

Luke 1:39-55

Not long ago there was a feature running in our parish magazine ‘Together’ about favourite hymns. Today I want to talk about another hymn, which wasn’t mentioned: perhaps the favourite hymn in all of Christianity. This is far bigger than ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ or ‘Love Divine’.

In the Gospel, that I have just read, we heard it. It’s the Song of Mary, which is often referred to by its old Latin name, Magnificat. ‘Magnificat’ means ‘magnifies’, ‘makes bigger’.

Every evening, about 6 o’clock, in every cathedral in this country, a really good choir (because all our cathedrals have super choirs) will sing this beautiful song, using the words from the Book of Common Prayer – words which were written half-way through the sixteenth century, as a translation from the Latin of St Jerome, which was itself a translation from the Greek that St Luke the doctor actually wrote his Gospel in.

And every Sunday at Evensong, at six o’clock at our sister church, St Mary’s in Stoke D’Abernon, there too, we sing the Magnificat. It could be the number one hymn in the Church of England – and versions of it are sung by churches all over the world. Magnificat might even be the most-loved hymn in Christianity.

Evensong in cathedrals – which is broadcast as Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesdays and Sunday afternoons – it’s on this afternoon at 3, if you want to listen, this time from Chester Cathedral [ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06rwy7p%5D – is reported to be the service where the congregations have grown most in the Church of England in recent years: not, actually, a modern service, but a service which can trace its origins back to the fourth century, and which was first set out, in the form we use today, in 1549.

The music which they sing is really beautiful. Choral Evensong, in every cathedral, every night, with a wonderful choir in every one, is a secret gem. More and more people are discovering it.

These are the words of the Magnificat that they sing:

My soul doth magnify the Lord :
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded :
the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth :
all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me :
and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him :
throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm :
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel :
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

OK, some words we ought to explain a bit. ‘He … hath holpen his servant Israel’. ‘Holpen’ means helped.

He has ‘regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’: he has looked favourably on her, he has held her in high regard, we might say.

And presumably you all know what a handmaiden is. Mary was a ‘lowly handmaiden’. She wasn’t one of the great and good.

‘For he that is mighty hath magnified me’. There’s that ‘magnifies’ word again. This time it’s not Mary ‘magnifying’ God, but her saying how God has magnified her.

And then the ‘purple passage’.
‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

Can you, really, see Mary, a teenager, a simple country girl, singing this song? Are they the sort of words which would just come tripping off the tongue of a teenager?

Not for the first time our Bible doesn’t really put this – even in a modern translation, like we used for the lessons – in the sort of language we would use today. ‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord’, in Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn which we’ve just sung, isn’t actually a very good translation either – although Bishop Timothy got it from my favourite modern Bible, the New English Bible.

The meaning is really better expressed by what a teenager today might say: ‘Deep in my heart, I big up the Lord’. I big Him up: that’s exactly right. Mary isn’t saying that she is somehow making God bigger – because God is bigger than anything – but she is bigging Him up, she is telling out His greatness.

Giles Fraser, who often does Thought for the Day on the Today programme, who was at one time philosophy tutor at Wadham College, Oxford and Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, who got fired for trying to make friends with the Occupy protesters camped out on the Cathedral doorstep, he, Giles Fraser, reckons that the Magnificat is one of the most powerful revolutionary texts. In September, he Tweeted, ‘BTW I don’t think [that] the Red Flag [is] anywhere near as revolutionary as the Magnificat’. [https://twitter.com/giles_fraser/status/643049147919110144]

Remember what Mary said. It could indeed be rather revolutionary.

‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

In these short lines, Giles Fraser thinks there is a revolutionary blueprint. There are some shades of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Man. Jesus turns everything on its head. The last shall be first and the first shall be last [Matt. 20:16].

I said earlier that perhaps Mary didn’t think up her famous song all by herself. As a regular worshipper in the synagogue, she would have remembered the song that Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, sang, thanking God for his birth. You can read it in the first Book of Samuel, chapter 2. ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord,’ she sings. ‘The Lord makes a man poor, he makes him rich, he brings down and he raises up. He lifts the weak out of the dust, and raises the poor … to give them a place among the great, …’

It’s very like the Magnificat. There is the difference that Mary uses a past tense: God did these things, he put down the mighty from their seat, and so on, whereas Hannah uses the present tense, he does these things. God is capable of bringing the rich and powerful down, and he is capable of building up the poor and meek. Hannah’s emphasis is more on what God can do, rather than on what he has done. Mary on the other hand says what He has done.

Both songs are songs, hymns, of praise for God. They are hymns of gratitude: ‘Now thank we all our God.’ And given that Mary undoubtedly started on one of the bottom rungs of society, it’s not surprising that from her point of view, she emphasised how God has humbled the rich and powerful from time to time.

So – do sample Choral Evensong, either on the wireless or – better – by going along in person, on Sunday evening to St Mary’s, or indeed on any weeknight to Guildford Cathedral. And when you hear, indeed when you sing, the Magnificat, do spare a thought for the handmaidens, spare a thought for the people who have to come to the Foodbank. You could be surprised at what might happen.